Interview with Kevin Spacey
I‘m afraid, okay? Afraid, because in five minutes I tell Keyser Soze, I mean, the devil himself, that there’s a problem with his website. And I tremble when I think about what will he do to me if I’m wrong.
Long before my much-feared face-off with two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, I made sure to arm myself with plenty of research into Spacey’s new website, Triggerstreet.com. The site was launched by his company Trigger Street Productions, which has made two documentaries as well as two features with first-time directors, The Big Kahuna and the upcoming The United States of Leland. The web-site grew out of Spacey’s passion to create a forum for new, undiscovered filmmakers and writers where they could be judged by their peers and then discovered by the entertainment community. Triggerstreet.com is an ongoing festival for films and screenplays in which the online users vote for their top ten candidates in both categories. Those top ten candidates are then evaluated by a group of celebrity judges at the end of each festival. Current volunteer celebrity judges donating their time include Danny Devito, Mike Myers, Cameron Crowe, Tim Burton, Annette Benning, and U2’s Bono. “Our goal is to give encouragement and visibility to artists who have no access to the industry,” Spacey says. “When I needed help in starting my own career, many people gave me encouragement and became my mentors. Now I feel that if you have done well in whatever business you are in, it is your duty to send the elevator back down and try to help bring up the next generation of undiscovered talent.” Such a mission statement proves that Spacey’s intent is completely altruistic; therefore, it’s a no-brainer to fully recommend his site as a place for the open exchange of ideas, both filmic and written.
One of the reasons that discovering new talent is so difficult is because people of Spacey’s caliber can’t simply open every innocent-looking manila envelope that arrives at his production company. Unless a tape or screenplay is submitted by an agent or lawyer, it’s too risky for production companies to accept unsolicited material, and could end up costing them big money in legal fees if they do. Triggerstreet.com wisely conquers this age-old problem by making its users click through and accept a three-page waiver and disclaimer when they register before they can view or upload any content to the site. After registration it’s a free-for-all; users can view and review as many short films or screenplays as they wish. The site’s interface is very slick and simple and functions quite well. Its one flaw, however, is a major one that, until fixed, will inhibit the site’s ability to legitimately discover new talent.
The flaw stems from the fact that users can vote to put any film or script in Triggerstreet.com’s database onto the site’s top ten list. This means that if an enterprising writer or director got all of his friends, family and friends of friends to vote for him, the system could be clogged with “friendly” votes to inflate a filmmaker’s ranking. Therefore, if the votes can be rigged, the website’s credibility goes down. So, again the question, how does one tell Keyser Soze that there may be a problem with his website? Just as I was pondering how to diplomatically present this, a very dapper Kevin Spacey and Trigger Street president Dana Brunetti sat down for their interview.
You started Triggerstreet.com to discover unrepresented new talent. That’s an admirable position to take, seeing as how most production companies do all they can to keep away outsiders.
Kevin Spacey: It’s frustrating because the best material I’ve ever been a part of with first-time screenwriters, first-time directors or first-time playwrights has been stuff that got chucked over the wall from people who didn’t have access. So, I’m annoyed at the fact that this pipeline of talent gets cut off when you reach a certain point in the profession. It’s like you’re penalized for doing well and that kinda bothered me, and I wanted to find a way to break that wall down.
So you’ve decided as a producer to act somewhat like an agent for new talent.
Spacey: Few of the big agencies have new talent divisions, so where do all those people go? The film festival circuit has been great for screenwriters and filmmakers because it’s an incredible forum to take your movie to and maybe get distribution – but if you’re going to a festival you’ve already made your movie. So, what about the people who just have a screenplay or an idea or maybe they made a short film on their video camera and cut it on their home computer? I started talking to Dana about it a year ago and said, “This is just f***ing wrong, and what can I do?” So, Dana came up with this brainchild…we’ve been developing it for a year and a half and are astounded that we not only were able to make it work, but were able to bring on the corporate sponsorship to allow it to exist – because we’re not trying to make money on this, but of course it takes money to run.
How’s the site going since the launch?
Dana Brunetti: I can tell you that right now we’re over 38,000 members, and if we were 500 right now I’d be ecstatic.
Spacey: Every now and then Dana will come in with the computer and say, “Look at this.” We’ve been looking at films and some of the reviews, and it’s really remarkable. It’s an incredibly exciting thing to see that people are participating in it. You can be a great filmmaker, but if the only people you’ve ever shown your work to is your family, what kind of real, honest criticism are you going to get?
What criteria have you given your celebrity judges to follow?
Spacey: None, really. We just told them when we hand them their top ten, to judge them based on what appeals to them. We’re going to have about three different festivals throughout the year, each with its own top ten.
You mention a possible mentorship from the celebrity judges: how will that work?
Spacey: That’s a good question, and we don’t have an answer to it because this whole project has been a very fluid thing. What we’re going to do with this first festival is we’re gonna learn and decide as we go along. I wouldn’t say the site is promising that a judge will become a mentor. It’s really about giving people a place to expose their work and have it talked about. One of the things about the Internet is that you’ve gotta stay ahead of the curve, and there’s a lot of stuff we’re still holding back that we’ll announce in the future.
The top ten screenwriters enter into a 90-day first-look deal with Trigger Street. The site explains it’s to consider setting up their project and/or getting them represented-what else does it entail?
Brunetti: It’s to protect us so that we don’t have other studios and production companies coming on and sniping people off our site. Not to say we’d discourage people from going to the studios… because if something gets made from our site, that’s a success for us.
What happens with the top three films once the judges narrow the list down?
Brunetti: Hopefully we’ll find other mediums like television or run it in front of feature films in theatres just to get them more exposure and to be more active in getting their work out there.
Spacey: The reason why we haven’t made the screenplay area a contest, and that we’ve opened up the short film festival to ten finalists and three winners is that we really don’t want people to do be doing this because they think they might win something. We want them to do it because they have a passion for it and they believe in what they’re doing and have a compelling reason to tell a story.
Your site hopes to set up an online community, but it’s currently without message boards or chat rooms. Arguably both have costs and are time consuming to maintain, but are there any plans to one day add them?
Brunetti: We’re contemplating a message board, but we don’t have plans for a chat room.
Spacey: At the moment the community is communicating. We have over 6700 reviews, over 95% of what’s on the site has been reviewed within a week, so in a way people are talking, even though it’s not directly to each other.
Brunetti: The number one guy on there now has a scene called Tenth. He has 3200 views of his film, and I e-mailed him to congratulate him on being number one and thanking him for participating. I don’t even know what’s going to happen with him, but he said his response has been fantastic and he’s gotten a lot of emails on his scene. So, he now has an audience for this short film he made, whereas he might not have found one before.
Project Greenlight uses a randomizer to assign scenes to be reviewed to prohibit people from polling or trying to throw the vote. Your system has no such safeguard. Have you considered implementing a randomizer?
Brunetti: You can only review one thing one time. Before you can submit a film or screenplay you must review one yourself and the system will automatically assign you another. The one that the system assigns to you is the one that has the least amount of views or reviews, so we kinda give everyone a fair shake and everything eventually will be reviewed. You can go out and campaign for your project… I mean you can’t tell families who to vote for.
I’ve already read paranoid Internet posts about your disclaimer/waiver. Some people feared it gave you the ability to compile short films onto DVDs or their scripts into books without their permission. Would you like to dispel these rumors?
Brunetti: Our site is very liberal and the disclaimers are there to protect us as a production company.
Spacey: If we ever decided to do that and say, hey, we’ve got ten films and we’d like to do something like that in the future, maybe – but you’d have to go to each individual and get permission to do that.
Brunetti: We have the right to use it…. If you’re scared of that, then don’t submit to our site, but the reason you’d submit it to our site is to get exposure. If we do put it on a DVD or do a TV series or something out of it, you’d be getting more exposure for your work, and that’s the reason it’s on [the site], but you still own it. We’re not going to re-edit it or cut it down or whatever. I’ve seen some of the same stuff you’re talking about, but I’ve also gone to other places and looked, and ours is very, very liberal compared to a lot of the other stuff out there. So, with short films, we have the right to use it in various mediums, and again the only way we’d use it is to get exposure for the filmmakers.
When do you announce the first set of finalists?
Spacey: Our first awards will be announced at the end of April or May. February 28 is the last day they can submit, and then the voting continues for a few weeks after that. Then after that they go to our judges, who have to have time to watch them and get back to us, and then we’ll announce them.
And with that a PR guru walks into the room signaling the end of my fifteen-minute interview – Brunetti and Spacey have a packed day of one-on-ones ahead of them. The next day chain-mail-styled e-mails are forwarded to the magazine from top-ten-ranked filmmakers and wannabes asking for anyone receiving the email to go to Triggerstreet.com and vote for their film. The site has been operational for less than a week and this clearly is already its biggest problem.
Triggerstreet.com needs to re-evaluate its voting method and should consider using a randomizer similar to the one on Project Greenlight to ensure that votes are cast out of admiration for talent rather than in response to a contestant’s campaigning. I admire the fact that Mr. Brunetti wasn’t bothered by the politicking of the site and almost seemed to encourage it, and while it can be easily argued that Hollywood is quite political, such politics don’t serve Triggerstreet.com’s best interests.
A compromise would be to continue the free-for-all populist vote, which can generate its own top ten list, while at the same time implementing a randomizer to generate the official top ten lists for the site. Whatever the solution, hopefully the voting process will be cleaned up; it would be a shame to see a site with so many creative merits unravel into a corruptible popularity contest. Criticism aside, Triggerstreet.com is a welcome new venue for writers and directors to find audiences for their work. Besides, who can argue with Keyser Soze?
Creative Screenwriting January/February 2003